Writing about beer means you taste hundreds of beers every year. At least. Most of them are… fine. A lot more than you’d think are relatively shitty. A fair few shine and a select few really shine. Maybe a handful will actually transcend the job itself and stick with you beyond your initial tasting.
Not many, though. After all, beer writers are creatures of habit and stuck in our ways just like everyone else. It’s tough for a newcomer to crack the rotation.
As someone who’s been writing about beer for more years than I care to count; is an active member of an international beer club with beer writers, judges, and brewers; has a beer-centric podcast with another beer-obsessed writer; and has toured breweries around the globe, I like to think I have a pretty evolved palate. But just like any aficionado, that palate is informed by the life I’ve led and the reference points I have. This is simply to say that the five core beers I go return to again and again are, in a sense, a mix of nature and nurture. Take them for what they are: my picks.
Without further ado, here are the five beers that stayed with me after all these years and thousands of tasting sips from frosty mugs (and little plastic tasting cups). One for each drinking occasion.
Everyday Beer: Augustiner Lagerbier Hell
Style: Helles Lager
Average Price: $16.59, six-pack
Augustiner is Munich’s oldest independent brewery. Hell, you could argue it’s the world’s oldest “craft” brewery, full-stop. Their entry-point beer is a classic lager made from four simple ingredients: water, yeast, malts, and hops. That’s it. Everything is locally grown and put together to highlight the simple yet perfectly executed beauty of a light Bavarian lager.
There’s a bright green grassy note that draws you in with a hint of bready malts. The taste has a well-rounded and slightly caramel sweet maltiness that’s counterpointed by dry straw and a touch of green hops. The carbonation is low, the mouthfeel is silky, and the overall experience is massively refreshing.
I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I can get a cold bottle of this beer at every corner shop for $1.75 a bottle. That’s a criminally low price for a beer this well crafted. The fact that I can also get this out of a wooden keg brought up from Munich for $9 per 1-liter glass also seems extraordinary.
Price aside, this is the perfect beer for crushing on a sunny day while sitting under a chestnut tree without a care in the world. It’s also the beer to have as an end-of-the-day sipper to take that edge off. It’s just damn near perfect, affordable, and suits any type of beer session.
Food Pairing Beer: Orval
Style: Belgian Pale Ale
Average Price: $6.99, 11-oz. bottle
This aged Trappist Ale is a highwater mark for Belgian ales. The brew marries Belgium craft with German beer-making ingenuity and English dry-hopping. The beer is fermented with proprietary and wild yeasts and then fermented again in the bottle, giving it real depth. The end result is a complex yet approachable ale.
There’s a nice sense of a flaky buttermilk biscuit with almost bitter blackberry preserves next to a bit of spicy stewed plums. A note of dry hay arrives with slight yeasty funk and plenty of apricot and pear. The bitterness returns late but is more like grapefruit pith, while a mild floral note kicks in on the fizzy and dry end.
This paired with a spicy meal is fantastic. The fruitiness, dryness, and light-ish fizzy body really acts as a nice counterpoint to the buzz of a chili-forward meal (think a Vindaloo or anything a la Diabla). While I like to pair this with a meal, it also works wonders as an everyday sipper when you’re looking for something a little more complex than a lager, especially in the winter.
End-of-the-week Beer: Guinness Draught
Style: Irish Dry Stout
Average Price: $10.49, six-pack
Guinness is one of the biggest beers in the world for a reason. The black stuff from Dublin is a well-defined beer that always delivers, thanks to deeply roasted barley malts, unique yeast, great Irish water, and quality hops. The dark red stout (trust me, it’s actually red not black … just hold it up to a light) is also very light and low in ABVs (4.2 percent), making it a highly sessionable beer.
You’re met with a light note of dark cacao and almost burnt caramel with a touch of nuttiness. There’s a sense of dark prunes, nuts, and dark spices that almost lean into a holiday cake vibe but not quite. The malty and chocolate-driven flavors remain bitter yet silky and the beer goes down almost too easily.
This is one of the most quaffable beers on the list. Sure, I’m biased. I’ve been to the Guinness Brewery a lot over the years. I’ve drunk barrels worth in Ireland and at home. And to this day, it’s a beer that I keep stocked in my fridge at all times. For me, it’s a reminder of all those great times in pubs around the Emerald Isle, all the friends I made along the way, and how much this beer was the center of it all — the perfect way to end the week!
Crafty Beer: Alaskan Smoked Porter
Style: Smoked Porter
Average Price: $9.80, 22-oz. bottle
Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter is a special beer. It has somehow survived decades of craft waves. The beer is made with smoked malts, giving the final product its signature smokiness. The brew is released once a year, in November as a vintage, and can be aged for years and years in a cellar, if you want.
Generally speaking, you’re going to be greeted with a well-used backyard smoker that’s part fatty smoked brisket, part smoked salmon fat, and a part smoked brown sugars. The bitterness leans more towards coffee beans with a hint of vanilla lurking in the background and maybe a touch of eggnog spice. The maltiness is light, while the body of the beer is somewhat hefty but never overpowering.
If you’re smoking something in the backyard, this is the perfect beer to break out for the smoke session and for the meal. It’s an old-school craft brew with some serious history. You can age the stuff to see how it grows and changes each year. That last factor is why I love this pick so much.
Tons of craft is made for a brief moment and then it’s gone. This beer lasts, ages with you, and always delivers.
Saving-for-a-special-occasion Beer: Cantillon Cuvée Saint-Gilloise
Average Price: $26.74, 750ml bottle
This Belgian Lambic is a bit like champagne by way of a hoppy and funky ale. The beer is a mix of two-year-old sour lambics that are dry-hopped for three weeks in oak casks, allowing the hops to impart their essence into the already solid beer.
You’re drawn into this one with a dry sense of apple peels, dry grass, sun-dried wildflowers, ginger snaps, and a savory fruitiness. The taste leans into the savory to the point of almost a squash, as notes of lemon zest and cloves bounce through your senses. There’s a bit of a sweet cedar on the dry and effervescent end that leads back to orchard fruit, yeasty funk, and mild florals.
Again, think great dry champagne mixed with a tart, floral, and slightly spicy hopped ale. It’s really hard not to love, makes for a great sipper or pairing beer, and is special enough (and expensive enough) to keep around until you have something to toast.